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Experimental sleep drug may cause fewer side effects: Merck study


3 Star


Experimental sleep drug may cause fewer side effects: Merck study

Our Review Summary

This story about a new type of sleeping pill does a better job than the HealthDay story we also reviewed of alerting readers in the first 6 words that it was just an animal experiment. However, there is less independent perspective provided than in the HealthDay story. Both stories make clear that the research was done by the company seeking FDA approval for a similar drug. And like the other story, this one fails to tell readers that this experiment did not test the sort of next-day hangover effect that hits many users of currently available drugs. It is puzzling, too, that neither story asks why these side effect questions apparently were not addressed in the human studies Merck submitted to the FDA.


Why This Matters

Journalists need to check the evidence against the claims. In this case, the primary concern mentioned is next-day hangovers caused by sleeping pills, but the experiment tested performance on midnight memory tests, a different matter. And whereas the story stated that the researchers “wanted to find out what would happen if someone is awakened on the drug,” that someone was only a rat or monkey in the newly reported trial.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Even though the drug maker has already applied for FDA approval to market a similar drug, there is no discussion of how much it will cost.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This study was in animals and the researchers note that tests will have to be done in people to see if there are similar results. The researchers also note that this animal experiment did not look at the “hangover” effects that many patients complain about. The story gives readers the impression that there is much more known about benefits than was actually tested in this experiment – especially with the lead saying the drug “may cause fewer side effects”…letting a researcher say “These treatments work by forcing the brain to go to sleep” (when the jury is still out on whether/how well they work…etc.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is one quote noting that further testing will need to be done to look for rare complications, including narcolepsy-like symptoms, but the story does not mention other side effects, such as sleep walking, balance issues, etc.  About a similar drug, Suvorexant, it states that the most common side effects have been headache and sleepiness – but no data are provided.

Throughout, the story is not clear in differentiating between Suvorexant and the similar drug tested in the latest trial – DORA-22.  Suvorexant is mentioned in the second sentence but it is NOT the drug studied in the trial being reported on.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The lead sentence claims that this animal study indicated the new drug “may help induce sleep without causing the memory loss and attention problems sometimes seen in the commonly used drugs Ambien and Lunesta.” However, the researchers wrote that the “current study design is limited in that it does not address the issue of next-day “hangover” or carryover effects.” In other words, this study did not look at the kinds of problems that the story says it did.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The medical literature contains a wide range of insomnia estimates. The 10% figure used in the story matches many estimates.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story does report that the researchers work for Merck, the company applying for approval to sell a similar drug. The story would have been better if it had included comments from an interview with an independent source (as did the HealthDay story we also reviewed), rather than just an excerpt of a journal commentary article.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There is no mention of the many non-drug strategies for dealing with insomnia.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story reports that Merck has applied for FDA approval of a similar drug.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story does describe how this drug works on a different part of the sleep-wake mechanism in our brains than currently-available drugs. However, it is odd that there is no mention of results from the human clinical trials that must have preceded Merck’s FDA approval application.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory


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